Towing Vessel Inspection (Subchapter M) Information and Opinion

WorkBoat Watch

Close enough inspection? Towing vessel rule released

David Krapf
August 18, 2011

Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard published its long-awaited towing vessel inspection program rule. Many are describing it as perhaps the most significant regulatory requirement since operators were required to be licensed.

The Coast Guard estimates that the new regulations will cost workboat operators $14 million to $18 million annually over the 10-year phase-in period, which at first glance doesn’t sound too bad if you spread it over the 5,200 tugs and towboats that this rule supposedly covers. Still, for the numerous small operators with small margins who populate our industry, anything that adds to the cost of doing business is felt.

The proposed rule has as its goal establishing new standards to ensure the safety of all aspects of towing vessel operations — from vessel equipment to human factors. The regulations also call for the use of Coast Guard-approved third parties to verify compliance.

There have been some major accidents in recent years involving towing vessels, and few now argue that a towing vessel inspection regime is not needed. As a journalist, I feel that one of the biggest benefits of the new regulations will be the elimination of the uninspected towing vessel label, which has been a public relations nightmare for the industry and its main lobbying group, the American Waterways Operators. Whenever a high-profile barge tow accident occurs (2008’s tanker/barge tow accident and oil spill on the Mississippi River is a “good” one), you can count on “uninspected” coming up in the discussion and news coverage.

Vessel operators recognize the need for the regulations. The lack of an inspection regime has allowed too many poorly maintained vessels to operate. While the regs won’t eliminate all of them, it is a step in the right direction.

But I have some concerns. The industry worked closely with the Coast Guard to develop the regulations, which raises the question of whether they will be tough enough. Also, how often do you hear about an industry being all for new government regulations that will cost them millions? I am also not convinced that it will adequately address what is arguably the biggest cause of casualties — action, or inaction, of crews who may be fatigued, distracted, poorly trained, etc.

And who will inspect these vessels? Coasties usually don’t stay in their billets long enough to become towing vessel experts. I’d like to see the “Coast Guard-approved” third parties that will be used to verify compliance include people who know their way around a tugboat. I’ll bet there are a bunch of retired towboaters and tug captains that can handle it. Maybe the Coast Guard can also hire some of the older guys that want to work but are being hassled at renewal time because of medical “problems.”

From Maritime Executive:

The Coast Guard is proposing extensive new regulations for the towing industry requiring towing vessels to obtain a certificate of inspection within the next few years. According to the Coast Guard discussion of the proposed rule, on an annual basis, towing vessel accidents are associated with 23 fatalities, 146 reportable injuries, 26 oil spills and $63.5 million dollars in property damage. 4% of major incidents were due to electrical failures, equipment failures in propulsion and steering accounted for another 30%, and human factors contributed to 54% of the major incidents. One of these major accidents happened in New Orleans in July of 2008 resulting in a $275 million dollar a day economic impact, and was used in Coast Guard testimony to Congress to argue in favor of the new regulations.

Since the majority of accidents are related to human factors, the Coast Guard is proposing a towing safety management system with specific procedures for crewmembers and shore side personnel to follow that will most likely ensure safe operations. The safety management system will be required to be audited by third party auditors to ensure that all vessels and employees within the company follow written protocols.

According to the Coast Guard, in May of 2002 a towboat hit the I-40 bridge when the operator became medically incapacitated resulting in 14 deaths and $60 million dollars in bridge damage. There were also eight other incidents over a ten-year period where towing vessel operators died while operating a vessel. As a result, the Coast Guard is proposing to require a “pilothouse alerter system” which sounds an alarm if there is no rudder movement over a period of time.

PHOTO CAPTION: The towboat Angelina pushes two loaded barges in New Orleans.

The Coast Guard proposed rule references a study which shows that typical towing industry watch systems of six-hours-on and six-hours-off can have a degrading trend with alertness and performance =levels comparable to someone with a blood alcohol concentration of up to 0.1%. As a result the Coast Guard is considering regulating working hours and adopting crew endurance management programs.

This is going to be a major change for the towing industry. The greatest challenge for companies will be getting captains and crews to conform to a system of written policies and procedures.

Kevin Gilheany is a maritime industry consultant who works with clients to achieve operational excellence through leadership and compliance. Kevin is a retired U.S. Coast Guard marine inspector, certified marine surveyor, auditor, and crew endurance management expert. He has served as a training provider to the U.S. Coast Guard, an Adjunct Instructor of Maritime Security at Tulane University, and as a contributing columnist for marine industry publications. Kevin keeps his readers informed through his blog, the Maritime Compliance Report. To arrange an interview, contact Kevin at (504) 319.3229.

MarEx does not necessarily endorse any opinions herein.

I wonder what will happen to the purple running with nothing but a master of towing. Well they be forced to upgrade and test like everyone else our will they be grandfathered and given a 500 ton license?

[QUOTE=Capt. Schmitt;54235]I wonder what will happen to the people running with nothing but a master of towing. Well they be forced to upgrade and test like everyone else our will they be grandfathered and given a 500 ton license?[/QUOTE]
Since the vessels we’re talking about are under 200 tons, I don’t see how the increase in license would be required or possible to acquire. If the vessel is under 100 tons wouldn’t that proscribe any license over 200 tons (I’m guessing). In any case I’m thinking there will be plenty of warning, and screaming.

It was a guess based on the fact that inland there is no tonnage restriction.

[QUOTE=Capt. Schmitt;54235]I wonder what will happen to the purple running with nothing but a master of towing. Well they be forced to upgrade and test like everyone else our will they be grandfathered and given a 500 ton license?[/QUOTE]

Why? the word “uninspected” was dropped when the OUTV license was eliminated and the Master of twoing vessels license was created. Inspected or not, it’s still a towing vessel and the license is still valid.

But if it is now an inspected vessel wouldn’t the operator be required to hold a non-restricted license as well? I believe current inspected towing vessels require appropriate tonnage licenses to run. Maybe that is just because of their route…

Towing vessels that are currently inspected are OVER 299 tons. They already require the higher license you refer to. Actually a towing vessel over 200 tons has required a higher license when operated past the line of demarcation anyway.

What does your license say? Master ( or Mate) of Towing Vessels? Does it have the word uninspected in there somewhere?

So how are we going to know which towing vessels require an unrestricted license and which do not once none are uninspected? Will it say on the COI?

The same as it has always been. If you have a MOT it will still be valid depending upon the tonnage of your license, and the tonnage of the towing vessel. I have not seen any restrictions you are talking about. There are none now.

I don’t remember saying there were any restrictions now. I just though once all towing vessels became inspected they would require an unrestricted license like current inspected tugs.